2.4 Performer And Audience

The breaking of the illusion can be illustrated by the following anecdote from a member of a present-day theatre audience.

I once saw Nichol Williamson play Macbeth at Stratford. During the floating dagger scene, when all was hushed in anticipation of the soliloquy, someone belched. Though the audience controlled itself, Williamson didn’t. Sitting down on a stool, he began to lecture the audience about how he was not going to be distracted from delivering one of the greatest speeches in English drama. It was a bizarre moment, because he’d broken the spell, making you want to pinch yourself, to check that it was really happening.
(Ball 1998:35)

A number of observations can be made here. Clearly both sides – actors and audience – must work together to maintain the theatrical frame, ‘the illusion’. When one side refuses, the theatrical performance ceases, even if only momentarily. When Nichol Williamson stepped out of the role of Macbeth, he dissolved theatrical space into theatre space and became himself, Nichol Williamson, who then gave a lecture, a different kind of performance. This caused the audience, who were still maintaining the theatrical frame, to look upon someone who was speaking as his real self as something so unbelievable that (at least) one of them wanted to pinch himself to check that it was really happening, whereas had that person on stage continued to pretend to be a Scottish nobleman from centuries ago, that would have been eminently believable. Reality and illusion have been reversed. This is because the theatrical frame is a finely-balanced social construction with many delicate components, a construct which something as trivial as a belch can throw into disequilibrium.

These cultural roles involved in theatrical events have to be learned. As well as being aware of spatial conventions, audiences must know about and use other organisational cues – curtains, lighting, bells etc. – to help them know when to attend to the dramatic action. But audiences must also know when to disattend to extra-textual ‘noise’ such as late arrivals, malfunctions, the sighting of stage-hands and, as we have seen, audience noises. Another disattendance is to see the performer-performer interaction as a model for face-to-face social intercourse. Real conversation and scripted dialogue differ significantly. In scripted discourse we find, unlike in real conversation, neat turn-taking, syntactically complete sentences, semantic coherence even in larger units, the blind aside etc. (Elam 1980:90).

Fischer-Lichte (1984), when discussing utterances in dramatic performance (as opposed to the literary dramatic text), comments that such dialogue ‘not only signifies a situation of direct communication but simulates it’. This means that such utterances are ‘performed in linguistic as well as paralinguistic, mimial, gestic and/or proxemic signs. The persons on the stage use the same sign systems as are commonly used in conversation’ (p.139). However, ‘the dramatic dialogue is not to be considered a mere reproduction of everyday conversation, but it uses the reproduction in order to create a special aesthetic meaning’ (p.163). The audience is aware of these differences but does its own cultural work of disattendance to such matters (Elam 1980:90).

There are two points to be made here. Firstly, such utterances are seen as somehow special, as having some kind of performative licence. Secondly, this does not mean that such talk inhabits some ethereal realm divorced from social life or is without social consequences. The social reception of performed utterances is one of the key features in a pragmatic consideration of humour and there will be a number of occasions when this issue will arise again – in 3.2 and 6.1, and particularly in Section 8.

However, as such frames can be both differently defined and learned in different cultures, disattendance may prove difficult in some circumstances. For example, Western observers may be irritated by the open intrusion of stage hands in Chinese theatre or find the authenticity of a Kabuki representation not easily accessible (Elam p.90). A clear example of this latter point is the simple fact that the Kabuki actor Nakamura Ganjiro III (b.1935) has been performing the role of an eighteen-year-old female in ‘Love-Suicides At Sonezaki’ since 1953, something which would hardly be credible in western theatre. Another point on disattendance, the programme for a performance of this play in London in 2001 (starring the sixty-six year old male as an eighteen year old female) had a notice inserted explaining the nature of kakegoe, the calls from the audience made while the performance is in progresss. It ends: ‘These calls add to the atmosphere of a Kabuki performance. Please do not be alarmed’ (Sadler’s Wells 2001). And, further, where a belch can bring a Shakespeare production to a halt in Stratford, in Gimi ritual theatre in New Guinea the audience is free to interject comments when they feel like it: ‘In a drama concerning a triangular love affair a man in the audience addresses the ugly husband: “I’d like to marry that lovely girl. You can’t have her!” The audience erupts into laughter’ (Gillison 1983:157). (We will see in the next section how comedic performance can play with these notions of attendance/disattendance.)

Even when there is a happy cultural correspondence between performance and audience and the roles on all sides are adhered to, this does not guarantee that a writer’s or performer’s meanings will always be understood. Carlson (1989) talks of audiences ‘reading’ a performance and uses Eco’s semiotic perspective of reader response, which involves the ideas of ‘model reader’ and ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts. The model reader is ‘supposedly able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way as the author deals generatively with them’ (Eco in Carlson p.84). Closed texts aim at generating a precise response from a more or less precise group of empirical readers, whereas open texts give fewer and fewer specific response indications and are increasingly open. Paradoxically, open texts are often less accessible than closed ones (p.84). It is in this generation and interpretation of meaning that Issacharoff sees an interplay of space and utterance: ‘stage utterances can shape the way we perceive the context [space] of their occurrence. In its turn, context lends meaning or may modify meaning considerably’ (1987:187). For example, Nell and Nagg from Beckett’s ‘Endgame’. They live in dustbins and thus all their utterances are framed by these, giving their discourse a tragicomic flavour (p.187). King also sees these connections and refers to the sophisticated contract between play and audience as the generator of meaning and she talks of, ‘what is, effectively, the contribution of the use of space to the semantics of the play. Thus, it is an audience’s laughter which defines the joke, and failure to laugh can determine the level of a comedic performance’ (1987:47). Indeed, this has to be the case if a performance is to work as a performance. There needs to be not only what Elam calls ‘organisational and cognitive principles’ (p.87) at work in a recognisable cultural context but there must also be conscious interaction between the performers and the audience.

It has been shown in the foregoing section that in various cultures at various times a clearly defined performance space developed in which people performed and outside of which others watched. This space has taken a variety of forms – amphitheatres, wooden stools, churches, a hut normally used as living quarters, stages with a proscenium arch, a room in a pub, the street. It was also seen that the audience/performer relationship is a learned, cultural dynamic which allows appropriate attendance/disattendance behaviour. Thus it is acceptable in some cultures for audience members to participate in performed dramas (New Guinea) whereas in others it is not (the belch at Stratford). This in turn depends on the type of performance given, so that, for example, at stand-up comedy performances in the UK, in contrast to a performance of Shakespeare, audiences are required to participate and there are mechanisms to facilitate this. This is heavily bound up with the nature of comedy and the comic performer, to whom it is now time to turn.

2.1 Performance>

2.2 Possible Origins Of Theatre>

2.3 Theatrical Space>

2.4 Performer And Audience Interaction